The Dangers of Meat


A summary of the PBS special called:

"Modern Meat: A PBS Frontline Documentary"

Aired Thursday, April 18, at 9pm, 60 minutes

It's as American as apple pie and vastly more popular. The hamburger has become our national food: Americans eat more meat than any other people in the world, with the average person devouring three hamburgers a week. And with more meat available than ever before, today's beef costs 30 percent less than it did in 1970, making it that much more attractive to consumers looking for a quick, cheap meal.

Yet despite new federal safety regulations, more than 100 million pounds of meat has been recalled since 1998 due to suspected bacterial contamination. And just last summer, the nation's largest meat processor had to recall 500,000 pounds of beef contaminated with e.coli bacteria from seventeen states.

How much does the average American know about the beef they're eating? Have dramatic changes in the U.S. meat industry compromised the overall safety of American beef? And are the new federal regulations enough to guarantee the safety of the meat we eat?

FRONTLINE explores these and other questions in "Modern Meat," airing Thursday, April 18, at 9 P.M. on PBS. Through interviews with current and former U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, meat inspectors, food safety experts, and industry representatives, the one-hour documentary reveals how today's highly-industrialized meat business has fundamentally changed the composition of the typical American burger, causing some to fear the spread of serious -- and even deadly -- bacteria. The program also explores the powerful U.S. meat industry's attempts to resist certain government regulations aimed at preventing contaminated meat from ending up in supermarkets and fast food chains across America.

"I think what the [meat] industry is saying is that they don't want to be accountable for the product that they're selling," says Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, an expose of the meat and fast food industry. "This industry has fought against food safety inspection for a hundred years."

"Modern Meat" takes viewers inside the U.S. meat industry, beginning at the cattle ranch and then moving on to the "feedlot" -- a huge industrial holding pen where as many as 100,000 cattle are held together until they are fat enough to be slaughtered. Then the carcasses make their way down a Detroit-style assembly line or "dis-assembly line," as one industry insider quips -- where modern advances have enabled some meat companies to strip as many as 400 carcasses an hour -- nearly three times as many as in 1970.

But such modern efficiency may pose potential health risks.

In "Modern Meat," FRONTLINE speaks with numerous scientists and industry observers who raise serious concerns about today's meat production system. With large numbers of animals being raised together in huge feedlots covered with feces, they say, it's easy for bacteria to spread from one animal to another.

"Cows tend to produce feces [and] feces is primarily bacteria," says Glen Morris, a microbiologist at the University of Maryland and a former USDA official "When those bacteria are spread around, there's ample opportunity for bacteria to be spread from one cow to the next.

"In the larger feedlots," he adds, "there's a greater chance for the passage of microorganisms back and forth. All of that contributes to the spread of microorganisms like e. coli."

Dr. Robert Tauxe is also concerned. "The new highly industrialized way we produce meat has opened up new ecological homes for a number of bacteria," says Tauxe, head of the Centers for Disease Control's Foodborne Illness Section.

Gone are the days, Tauxe says, when a hamburger patty contained the meat from a single cow; with enormous numbers of cattle now being herded, fattened, slaughtered, and ground up together, it's virtually impossible to determine how many cows contribute to a single burger.

"If we take meat from a thousand different animals and grind that together," he says, "we're pooling bacteria from a thousand different animals as well."

What's more, there is increasing evidence that the modern meat industry's widespread use of antibiotics to promote growth and keep livestock healthy may result in the development of bacteria strains that are resistant to antibiotic treatment.

The consequences of bacterial contamination can be deadly. In 1993, Jack in the Box hamburgers contaminated with a deadly strain of e. coli killed four children and injured 750, causing the government to seek a more scientific system for inspecting meat.

For decades, industry experts say, meat inspectors had practiced the "poke and sniff" method of visually inspecting carcasses for signs of disease. Following the Jack in the Box outbreak, the government proposed implementing a new inspection system -- known as "HACCP" (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) -- that would require microbial testing to detect the presence of invisible -- yet harmful -- bacteria such as e. coli and salmonella.

The proposed testing for salmonella, however, was not embraced by the meat industry. In "Modern Meat," FRONTLINE speaks with industry insiders and government officials who say the powerful U.S. food lobby -- which has contributed heavily to key Capitol Hill lawmakers -- aggressively fought including this testing as part of the new regulations.

It's a charge that the American Meat Institute's J. Patrick Boyle denies. "It's not the beef industry that's fighting standards that are meaningful, that improve the wholesomeness of the product," Boyle tells FRONTLINE. "The beef industry has reservations about unscientific standards that have no relation to the safety of our products."

The USDA resisted industry pressure, and in 1996 the U.S. meat industry began making the transition to the new inspection system. Since then, the USDA has reported a marked drop in salmonella contamination of ground beef, while the CDC has also begun to see a drop in some food borne illnesses. Yet the American consumer still faces serious risks.

Each year, the CDC tracks numerous cases of food poisoning, while the USDA maintains a running list of tainted meat recalls. The growth in global trade, meanwhile, has increased the risk of diseased cattle or beef coming into the country and decimating the U.S. livestock population. Last year, for example, USDA Inspector General Roger Viadero discovered that 650,000 pounds of foreign meat from a country embargoed because of foot and mouth disease found its way into America's heartland.

In addition, a recent court ruling threatens to limit the government's enforcement of its new food safety regulations. In "Modern Meat," FRONTLINE examines a lawsuit filed by Texas meat grinding company Supreme Beef against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When the USDA effectively shut down the company after it failed bacterial contamination tests three times -- once after nearly 50 percent of its meat was found to be contaminated with salmonella -- the company sued. Supported in its lawsuit by the National Meat Association, Supreme Beef charged that the government didn't have the right to shut down its operations simply because it failed to meet the USDA salmonella standards. Last month, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the meat industry, prompting concern from some industry observers.

Carol Tucker Foreman, head of food safety at the Consumer Federation of America and a former USDA official, believes the modern meat production and distribution system leaves consumers vulnerable to a widespread outbreak of bacterial contamination. She points to a case in which sixteen deaths and five stillbirths were connected to Ball Park Franks found to be contaminated with deadly listeria.

"Those hot dogs were shipped everywhere," Foreman says. "And thousands and thousands of them were made every day. So the potential for one mistake rippling out and causing thousands of deaths is there."

Following the broadcast, visit FRONTLINE's Web site at for more on this report, including:

Statistics and articles on the industrialization of the U.S. meat industry; Background reports from inside the slaughterhouse, readings and interviews on current conditions, and the movement for humane slaughter; Facts and advice for the consumer about choosing meat and eating safely; Extended interviews, chronologies and a video report. "Modern Meat" is a FRONTLINE co-production with Cam Bay Productions. The producer and writer is Doug Hamilton. The co-producer is Steve Johnson. The senior producer for FRONTLINE is Sharon Tiller.

FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS.

Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers. National sponsorship for FRONTLINE is provided by EarthLink« and NPR«.

FRONTLINE is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.

The executive producer for FRONTLINE is David Fanning. Press contacts for FRONTLINE:

Erin Martin Kane []

Chris Kelly []

(617) 300-3500


horizontal rule

[Home] [Back to the Articles page] [Back to the Vegetarian page]